Another shaky outing by Niese contributes to Pirates' loss to Cubs
Jon Niese wanted to get away Sunday afternoon.
Niese had showered, dressed and was clutching the handlebars of his motorized scooter — decaled with a Donald Trump campaign sticker — as the media entered the clubhouse after the Pirates' 6-5 loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Niese wanted to explain another poor start and quickly get on to the break and the second half.
After allowing five runs and eight hits over 3 2⁄3 innings Sunday, Niese finished the first half with a 5.13 ERA.
“This first half, I'm going to be honest, it just wasn't good,” Niese said. “I've never been on this bad of a run. ... The All-Star break is good. It's a good reset button.”
The Pirates (46-43) go into the break trailing the Cubs (53-35) by 7 1⁄2 games. While they did not sweep the Cubs, they cut their deficit in half after trailing the Cubs by 15 games June 19.
Whether Niese will be a key player in the club's second half is unclear.
Manager Clint Hurdle said he and general manager Neal Huntington began mapping out a plan for the second-half rotation this weekend, though no details were revealed. Hurdle would not commit to Niese being in the rotation to open the second half.
“Those are conversations we have after all these players get back (from the All-Star break),” Hurdle said. “We are going to try and put together the best rotation we can.”
Huntington said Tyler Glasnow is a “viable option” to be in the second-half rotation. Jameson Taillon has been as effective as any Pirates starter in his five outings. Gerrit Cole made his second rehab outing Sunday. Though Jeff Locke made his first relief appearance since Aug. 14, 2012, on Sunday after 104 straight starts, he figures to be a left-handed option ahead of Niese along with Francisco Liriano.
Is Niese feeling pressure because of the increasing population of pitching options?
“No, that doesn't bother me,” Niese said.
After the Pirates won the first five games started by Niese this season, they have lost nine of the past 13.
After a walk to Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr. smashed a two-run homer to left off an elevated Niese pitch in the fourth to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Hurdle walked to the mound to take the ball from Niese.
Niese, who had his start pushed back to Sunday because of left-knee discomfort, said his knee wasn't an issue. Hurdle also didn't think it was problematic.
“I don't think that's the issue,” Hurdle said. “The one common theme: There's better location down when he's been more efficient.”
Niese was not helped by the defensive effort behind him.
In the first inning, Willson Contreras hit a line drive to center field. Andrew McCutchen ran back to intercept the ball but dropped it. The ball was ruled a hit and was the third single of the first inning off Niese.
Addison Russell followed by sharply hitting a ball that deflected off the glove of David Freese and into left field to score two.
The Pirates also have to make a decision on what to do with Josh Bell.
After falling behind 0-2 to John Lackey in the seventh, the rookie watched three Lackey cutters dive below the strike zone without chasing. He fouled off two tough full-count pitches then watched the ninth pitch of the at-bat miss for a walk. He emphatically tossed his bat toward the home on-deck circle.
John Jaso followed with a single, advancing Bell to second and ending Lackey's afternoon.
Bell advanced to third on Starling Marte fielder's choice and some nifty baserunning, and McCutchen who homered early in the game and perhaps is getting hot, hit a flyout to deep right near the foul line. Bell tagged and tested the arm of Jason Heyward, perhaps the game's best right fielder. Bell slid in safely to tie the score 5-5.
“It was just battle mode,” Bell said of his at-bat. “Just trying to spit on the balls underneath the zone.”
Bell likely will head back to Triple-A in part because the Pirates want him to receive more finishing work. But not all players require extensive Triple-A experience. Evidence? Kris Bryant.
Bryant had 330 Triple-A plate appearances before being called up by the Cubs last April.
After a Matt Szczur double to left-center in the eighth against Tony Watson, Bryant followed by ripping his third hit of the day into left, scoring Szczur to give the Cubs a 6-5 lead.